Reformation Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| River Heights Lutheran Church| October 27, 2002
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ Romans 1:16-17
When you claim to know the truth, you’re not boasting about yourself. Certainly not when the truth you claim to know is the gospel of Jesus Christ. St. Paul wrote, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” He didn’t write, “I am not ashamed of Paul” because he was ashamed of himself. When he talked about himself he confessed himself to be the least of the apostles and the chief of sinners. When Paul considered Paul, he had nothing about which to boast. In fact, when he added up everything he, Paul, had done for God as a dutiful Pharisee, he dismissed everything that had come from himself as the worst kind of garbage. Paul was not proud of Paul.
And it was precisely because Paul was ashamed of Paul that he gloried in the gospel. The gospel takes away our shame. This is why we love it, confess it, teach it, defend it, and mark and avoid any doctrine contrary to it. The gospel is our life, our hope, and our righteousness before the judgment of God. To be ashamed of the gospel is to be ashamed of the only thing that can take our shame away. The only glory that we have is Christ who has revealed himself in the gospel. When we state our Christian convictions clearly, without any backing away from them, we are doing nothing else than confessing Christ.
St. Paul calls the gospel of Christ God’s power to save those who believe it. What gives the gospel its power? Of course the fact that it comes from God makes it powerful. When God says something that makes it so. God’s word is almighty. The word by which the world was made is powerful also to save sinners from hell. The gospel is never dead words. It is the living voice of the living God who speaks and makes it so. The same God who said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, is the God who says to the sinner filled with shame: “You are now righteous, you are now pure, you are holy, you are spotless, blameless, without a single flaw, you are a saint. You are holy because I say you are holy.” God says it and it is so. It is so because God says it.
This morning, however, I would like to talk with you specifically about what makes the gospel powerful to save sinners. It is true enough that the word of God is powerful simply because it is the word of God. But that’s not what Paul in saying in our text. He is saying rather that the gospel is powerful to save those who believe it because in this gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed.” It is the “righteousness of God” that gives the gospel its power to save.
What is this “righteousness of God”? Let me tell you a story. It may be familiar to you, but it bears repeating. It is the story of a German friar by the name of Martin, but it could well be your story, too, despite the differences in detail.
Martin was a very promising young man. His father wanted him to be a lawyer. He was bright and hard working. He had done quite well in school. He had learned the Holy Scriptures. He was not only fluent in the original Hebrew and Greek of the Bible, he was also a very good theologian as well as a talented teacher, poet, and musician. He was likely one of the most gifted men who ever lived.
But he was filled with misery. He wanted to be a good Christian. That’s all he wanted to be. He wanted to know the grace of God. How can a sinner find a gracious God? Despite his great education, he just didn’t know. He was of the Augustinian order, so he knew of Augustine’s famous prayer, “Lord, thou hast made us for thyself and our souls are restless ‘till they find their rest in thee.” But he had found no rest in the Lord. Instead, he had found only God’s judgment against sinners.
He prayed the prayers given him to pray. But did he really mean them? He followed the rules given him to follow, but was his heart truly devoted to it? He not only followed the Ten Commandments as to their outward requirements, he also followed the so-called “evangelical counsels” that the church had added on to the Ten Commandments. Outwardly Martin Luther was as righteous a man as St. Paul the Pharisee had been. But he was so very far away from God.
Luther understood that God’s law requires more than mere lip service or outward obedience. When God tells us to love Him above all things He isn’t satisfied with our doing the best we can. Luther learned his theology well. He had learned that if only he did the best he could do God would take care of the rest. In fact, that was the essence of the “gospel” in which he was raised: “Do what is in you to do.” He did what was in him. He did everything he could do. It was not enough because between him and God was something he couldn’t get past. It was like a wall a hundred miles high, topped with electrified barbed wire and guarded by vicious dogs. It was the righteousness of God. Oh, what a beautiful thing! Oh, what a terrifying thing! The righteousness of God!
Luther was alone with nothing but his Bible and his tormented soul. “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” Of course he wasn’t! But he was ashamed of himself! The sinful thoughts, the pride, the vanity, the bitterness, and the hatred. Oh yes, he hated. He even hated God! He didn’t want to hate God. He wanted to love God. But he couldn’t love a god who was only and always angry with him and what else could God be but angry when God’s righteousness stood between God and Martin Luther? As Luther did what was in him to do, as he did his very best, he could see that it couldn’t compare to the righteousness of God. It was beautiful, holy, pure, and divine. It was so far above poor Martin that it could never be his, but it could only keep him away from God. And so Luther suffered alone with his Bible.
Now anyone who argues that the Bible alone is insufficient as a basis for Christian doctrine argues out of ignorance. It’s true enough that the Bible requires reading and the one reading it needs to understand how language works, but the plain sense of the Bible is what saved Luther. Luther did not find his Savior in his prayers or struggles. Luther did not find his Savior in doing what was in him to do. Luther found his Savior in the words of the Bible, specifically the words recorded by St. Paul in our text for this morning: “In it (that is, in the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” The righteousness of God is not that righteousness whereby God is righteous in contrast to us who are not righteous. The righteousness of God is not that righteousness that God requires us to do. Luther had tried to do what was in him to do and he found to his bitter disappointment that what was in him to do was not righteous, but sinful. Now he discovered that the righteousness of God is “from faith to faith.” It isn’t a righteousness that we do. It is a righteousness that God gives to us and that we receive by faith. It is a righteousness that is for those who when they do what is in them to do learn that they are filled with failure and sin.
Luther had been taught that the gospel was really another law or set of rules to follow. This is why he had a hard time regarding it as “good news” though that’s what the word “gospel” means. By studying the biblical text here in Romans 1:16-17 he learned that the gospel was not something we are to do but instead a gift that God gives. The gospel reveals a righteousness that comes from God and is given to those who believe. Believe what? Believe the gospel! “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.” It saves through faith. Faith is setting aside any reliance on our own goodness or righteousness and trusting instead in the righteousness of Another, namely, Jesus.
This righteousness of God is the greatest treasure anyone can have. If you have it, you are a saint. You have Jesus, God the Father, eternal life, and peace, comfort, and joy here on earth. If you don’t have this righteousness of God, you don’t have God, you don’t have life, in fact, you are bound to go to hell, and there is nothing you can do to prevent it.
The gospel reveals the righteousness of God. It gives the righteousness of God to people who can claim no justice, no righteousness, no goodness of their own. It is given to losers and failures – people with whom God is rightly offended and angry. The gospel comes to the spiritually blind and helpless. And the gospel gives to these people, these losers, these failures, these blind sinners, true victory, success, and spiritual enlightenment. The gospel does this by giving to the sinner the righteousness of Another, and that other is Christ.
Now this righteousness that comes from God is something very real and concrete. It is as real as our sin. We can see our sin easily enough if we listen to God’s law. When God teaches us of the love we must have for him and of the love we must have for one another, and when this teaching of God’s law shows us that we haven’t done what is required, isn’t this real sin? Doesn’t real sin call for real punishment? Of course it does. But look and see that Jesus’ righteousness is real righteousness. He was born without sin. He lived a sinless life. Without fail, without any omission, without flaw, he obeyed the law of love. He suffered in our place. He is the Lamb of God who went silently to his suffering, taking the place of all sinners. He fully paid for all our sin. Now if he did the righteousness that was required of us and if he bore the penalty of the sin that was our due, then he is our righteousness. And this is exactly what the Bible teaches. The prophet Jeremiah calls Jesus “the LORD, our righteousness.” And, as our text says, this righteousness is from faith to faith. Faith in the gospel that reveals it is the only way to receive this righteousness.
This faith is not something that we do; a decision that we make; an act that we perform. Faith does not do. Faith receives. In receiving the righteousness of faith, the recipient is now righteous or just. And so he lives. He, the one who is justified by faith in Christ, lives. There is no other life that is true or worth living. Only the life lived in fellowship with God is a life worth living, and only those who have the righteousness of Christ by faith are in fellowship with God.
When we say with St. Paul and with Martin Luther, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” we are also confessing our willingness to confess it, defend it, support it, and die before we would be willing to compromise it or barter it away for the sake of outward respectability. Only the righteousness of Christ can cover our shame, and the shame of every sinner. Trusting in our own merits, believing that our own good deeds help to save us is the very opposite of trusting in Christ, and there simply is no righteousness that avails before God except for the righteousness of Christ. We cannot mix our good deeds with Christ’s good deeds and depend on both. Either Christ’s righteousness is given to us gratis, freely by a gracious heavenly Father in the word of his gospel, or we are lost. Either this gospel is true or the whole world is damned eternally.
This gospel is true. That’s why we are not ashamed of it.